- Liquid Landscape: Geography and Settlement at the Edge of Early America by Michele Currie Navakas
Florida, Geography, Geology, Joshua Reed Giddings, Zora Neale Hurston, Harriet Beecher Stowe
Colonial powers, from Spain to the United States, tended to think of the flat, swampy peninsula of Florida as a hard place to govern that was even harder to settle. In this smart new book, Michele Currie Navakas argues that Florida’s difficult geography, especially at its southern terminus, made it a rich site of cultural production and political debate. Florida, Navakas reminds us, was a place where mangrove trees could create new land, where the distinctions among islands, reefs, and mainland were seldom clear, and where hurricanes dashed ships to pieces and remade coastlines. These features raised “pressing questions about place, personhood, and belonging that animated U.S. culture and literature during the eighteenth and nineteenth century” (3–4). A land that was always in flux with the sea defied Anglo American expectations that colonies must be founded on bounded, arable earth. Florida “provoked early observers to realize that founding required something other than firm fixity to a single section of ground” (13).
In five chapters, Navakas combines analysis of colonial guides, maps, and pamphlets with rereadings of an eclectic collection of Florida-centered works. The result is an engaging exploration of Florida’s ever-shifting place in the American imagination. Navakas begins her analysis with a riff on John James Audubon’s description of the mangrove tree, the semi-aquatic plant with exposed roots that were often more prominent than its branches. Audubon observed that the mangrove’s expansive [End Page 329] branch-like roots were capable of gathering and forming land. This image of roots taking hold in wet, shifting soils becomes an overarching theme of the book. Navakas reads Audobon’s musings alongside William Bartram’s Travels (1771) and William Gerard De Brahm’s 1772 survey of the peninsula. She finds that British writers had to discard old Lock-ean assumptions about how to take possession of a new territory. Instead they would start to theorize “a form of ownership involving detachment and mobility, rather than demarcation and enclosure” (19). The dynamic geology of the Keys fascinated De Brahm, while Bartram was drawn to creative adaptations to amphibious conditions, like the area’s ancient mounds that demonstrated the Native practice of terraforming dry land out of wetlands.
Navakas then turns to maps, noting a long cartographic tradition of representing southern Florida not as a contiguous part of the continent but rather as offshore islands. Well into the early republic, maps depicted the peninsula’s lower half as a dense archipelago that gradually transitioned into the Bahamas and Greater Antilles, essentially acting as stepping stones toward the Caribbean. Navakas underscores the point with her reading of John Howison’s popular short story “The Florida Pirate” (1821), a tale that fails to include any modern Florida locations. Instead the protagonist, a runaway slave and sailor named Manuel, flits from Charleston to Cuba and the Bahamas. Navakas points out that “to those who understood Florida as a ‘terraqueous region’ of islands, keys, and sandbars that change shape, size depending on which geography textbook or map one consults, ‘The Florida Pirate’ easily takes place in Florida” (62). Contrary to dominant national thinking that prioritized a bounded monolith of unified states, Florida offered an expansive, uncertain fringe.
As Florida progressed toward statehood, writers saw different destinies in its liquid landscape. James Fenimore Cooper, a writer who Navakas notes is seldom associated with the area, nonetheless made it a central location in his 1848 novel Jack Tier; Or, The Florida Reef. Here the real-life lighthouses and “wrecker” economy that flourished on the Florida Keys made for a picaresque setting; Navakas highlights Cooper’s interest in the islands known as the Dry Tortugas, which many antebellum writers imagined as a kind of Gibraltar of the Gulf. The region held literal “keys” to a future of American maritime dominance, especially in [End Page...